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The hidden danger of formaldehyde in RVs

Over the years there has been much discussion and many articles written about formaldehyde present in RVs and the effect it can have on owners. Probably the biggest story was the FEMA trailers purchased during the Hurricane Katrina disaster that sat in a field in the Midwest over the summer. Once they were distributed and sold, people were getting sick due to the high levels of formaldehyde in them.

According to a report published on the “Summary of a CDC Study in the Gulf Coast Region,” the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tested units for levels of formaldehyde in Mississippi and Louisiana that were supplied to victims of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita in 2007 and 2008.

FEMA units in storage in Hope, AR

The tests found extremely high levels of formaldehyde in not only new, unused trailers but also trailers that were being used by families. Levels were on average 77 parts per billion (ppb), which could cause health problems if inhaled over time.

What is formaldehyde?

According to the EPA, formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable gas that has a very strong odor and can cause extreme health issues. It is found in glue, adhesives, and resins used in the manufacturing of particle board, medium density fiberboard (MDF), insulation, and other building materials. It becomes extremely dangerous at room temperature or higher as it becomes a gas and can cause minor irritation in the eyes and throat or worse with extended exposure. Normal concentrations in the environment are .003 parts per million.

The history of formaldehyde in RVs

Back in 1968, our family moved to Forest City, Iowa. In 5th and 6th grade I was bused to a small town, which took us directly by the Winnebago “North Plant.” The smell of glue hung in the air for 10-15 minutes as we passed the assembly line building. It gave everyone a temporary “high” similar to sniffing model car glue. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, almost every component in the RV was glued together. That included paneling used for cabinets, adhesive in the jute-backed carpet, wallpaper, and even an adhesive in the insulation known as Urea-Formaldehyde Foam Insulation (UFFI).

Over the years, advancements in technology changed and less formaldehyde was present in building materials or was being controlled and created less off-gassing. Insulation manufacturing changed to produce less volatile organic compounds (VOC) and manufacturers started using components that were less likely to absorb initial formaldehyde fumes known as re-emitters.

Also, the U.S. government started studying the effects of formaldehyde and ways to reduce it in building materials and established guidelines for Ultra Low Emissions Formaldehyde (ULEF) or No Added Formaldehyde (NAF) requirements. All these components resulted in less formaldehyde off-gassing or being less affected by temperature changes. These also came at a higher price.

Formaldehyde dissipation

In 1985, I worked in the Owner Relations Department at Winnebago Industries. At the time, there was very little talk of formaldehyde in our units. However, once in a while we would get a call that the new owners were experiencing extremely itchy eyes and sore throats when entering their new rig. We had a procedure called the “Stink Bomb” that was a mixture of ammonium carbonate with water and charcoal. The components were placed in several metal pans on the floor of the rig with fans circulating the air inside, with all doors and windows shut. The ammonia fumes would saturate the wood, fabric, carpet and other components and neutralize the formaldehyde, and the charcoal would absorb the ammonia fumes. After 2-3 days, the unit would be opened, pans discarded, and the unit would be allowed to air out for 2-3 more days. It seemed to work every time.

Today, less formaldehyde is used in building materials so there are less drastic measures that are required. However, you still will get some units that will have an irritating effect on sensitive owners. Typically, these units can be left to air out over a course of a few days to let the formaldehyde gas off. Also, carbon-based air filters or even oxygenating air filters can be effective.

What happened with the FEMA units?

When FEMA had the bright idea of housing displaced residents of the Katrina and Rita disasters in temporary housing, they turned to the RV industry and put out a request for quotes to supply RVs. The problem was the price. It had to be cheap. That meant using the cheapest materials and building practices, which meant more adhesive-based components. Rather than using labor intensive and more expensive solid wood cabinetry components, particle board and paneling was used. Cheaper jute-backed carpet or adhesive-applied vinyl flooring and other components meant more formaldehyde-based exposure. Then letting them sit in a field for months on end in 90+ degree temperatures created a disastrous situation.

Formaldehyde and RVs today

As stated earlier, the U.S. government has developed guidelines for formaldehyde emissions and other off-gassing issues for manufacturing. However, it has not completely disappeared as it is still required in some adhesives. More water-based adhesives are being used and the curing or drying process produces less environmentally damaging off-gassing and less formaldehyde. By the time the unit gets to the dealership, there is very little issue. However, less-expensive units will still have more adhesive-based components and could create some irritation for more sensitive RV owners.

For more information on formaldehyde, it’s effects, and precautions, visit the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) report on formaldehyde and its potential impact on indoor air quality here.

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Dave Solberg is a leading expert in the RV industry and author of the “RV Handbook” as well as the Managing Editor of the RV Repair Club.

Read more from Dave here

##RVT1049

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ddobs
24 days ago

y’all might consider getting an ozone generator Industrial O3 Air Purifier Deodorizer Sterilizer (11,000mg – Black)4.6/5 [15k ratings]…it’s what crime scene ‘clean up’ crews use,& as well as this ret.mechanic with asbestos&CO destroyed lungs, after moving back into a smoke/water damaged newly ‘rebuilt’ home,that stank to highhell from modern construction materials…neg ions are truly a breath of fresh air, you betcha! cheers

Billh42
24 days ago

If you suspect you may have a formaldehyde problem there are inexpensive test kits that can be used to sample the air quality in your RV. Found several listed on Amazon.

Steve
24 days ago

Timely article, Dave. Just hope prospective owners of all those new RV the manufacturers are building can read it.

Dino Evans
24 days ago

I’m curious…as a dad/husband for 3 kids+wife+cat and looking to buy a replacement rv class c motorhome. Any thoughts on which manufacturers are better for materials used? I read so many articles, but they seem to not address low use of VOC or formaldehyde as a selling point. If you have any advice, I’d appreciate it.

BILLY Bob Thronton
24 days ago

Attention Randy Quad, a.k.a. Cousin Eddy. It appears you might have a case against the RV industry. And here i thought something was wrong with Eddy, it obviously was inhilation of Formaldehyde.

Joe Balaz
25 days ago

In 2007 we looked at trailers at a dealer. They were locked up in the summer. When opened and you entered, the offgassing fumes were almost impossible to bear for a long time. It was awful. Way better materials and processes now. Now, it’s the prices and quality that I can’t bear…can’t win.

Tony
25 days ago

Interesting article, especially as we are about to purchase a new Winnebago. Hopefully they use safer materials in 2020, but we’ll be sure to leave it air out more than our old unit

About 20 years ago I moved into an executive office with brand new laminated plastic (MDF or particle board covered with Formica) furniture. Of course the office had windows that would not open to let the fresh air in. The smell of the glues wasn’t extreme, but was definitely there. The most telling sign was in the bottled water I kept in my credenza. After a couple of weeks it would taste awful. Somehow the off gassing would permeate the plastic water bottles that were stored in the credenza.

Bob p
25 days ago

I was driving trucks back then and remember well the FEMA trailers parked in fields by the hundreds. Even then if the wind was blowing toward the highway I could get the odor of formaldehyde in the air. I also passed by several FEMA parks in the New Orleans area and wondered how those people stood it, but I guess it was better than living under an overpass.